It’s 2029. You’re a hacker named Chloe living in the East Asian surveillance city-state of Abraxa. Once apathetic, you reconnect with old friends and find new ones as your district is blocked off by a mysterious corporation. Quickly, you set about disrupting its surveillance network by hacking into the city’s architecture with machine-aided perception, forging political alliances across ideological divides along the way.
This is the world of Solace State, a 3D visual science fiction novel about a near-dystopian future. Made by Tanya Kan, in collaboration with other Toronto-based artists and developers, it is an attempt to fuse three worlds of particular interest to its creator: cinema, gaming, and activism. Solace State, which is still in development, tackles various themes, from corporate surveillance and governance to ethnic roots, immigration, and economic justice.
Kan, whose academic background is in political science and cinema studies, tells Fast Company that Solace State grew out of time she spent in Hong Kong in 2012. Though Canadian, Kan has roots in Hong Kong. While living there, she quickly noticed a city in a deep state of rapid cultural and political flux. For one, a major housing shortage was hitting one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. She saw people struggling to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Kan queried Hong Kong residents about how they motivated themselves to find decent food and housing, stable jobs, and careers, as well as care for their city’s environmental health. These conversations formed the basis for the Solace State script.
“I started thinking about how I can represent East Asian culture in a way that is in an interactive medium, and how can I talk about an emergent kind of activism and advocacy,” Kan says. “I took a lot of pictures of [Hong Kong] as photographic records so I could build up a 3D city. I wanted a story that articulates some of our generation’s concerns in the sense of what kind of life do we have, and how can we find a future worth living for.”
With this concept in mind, Kan began searching for a format that would fit the story. Ultimately, she decided to combine her cinematic and gaming influences into a 3D visual novel. Given the format’s inherent interactivity, Kan wagered that it would allow players to make difficult choices in striving for social change, while also creating (and maintaining) social cohesion. A combination of 2D and 3D aesthetics would allow cinema’s flat presentation to be broken by players, who could “cut through” Abraxa’s architecture. Not only does it interrupt the gaze of the movie viewer, Kan notes that “it interrupts the paradigm of the first-person direction as well.”
The corporate specter
The current demo of the game begins with a corporation locking down an entire neighborhood in Abraxa. Kan says the walled, seaside immigrant district in the Alfonso Cuarón film Children of Men (based on the P. D. James novel) was a big inspiration for this piece of inciting action. Players will ask themselves many questions, like: Why is this corporation erecting borders? Why are they preventing a certain group of people from accessing the physical space outside of this particular neighborhood? Why are they watching Chloe and the others? And how is it that they cannot communicate with loved ones in other parts of their city, as well as across the world?
“They’ve essentially censored the region,” says Kan. “So the question becomes: What is the corporation trying to do with all of the information that is in the place?”
Kan points to Theo Faron, the main character in Children of Men—a man forced out of apathy into an activist role—as a particular influence Chloe’s character biography and personal arc. Chloe is similarly apathetic; but, in traversing and penetrating the city spaces, she grows into the role of a hacktivist.
Although Chloe is a hacker, Kan created her—and, indeed, the world of Solace State—with different rules in mind. Kan and her collaborators at the interactive digital media studio Vivid Foundry aren’t going for the realistic hacking found in the TV series Mr. Robot, for example. Instead, Kan says the developers decided to pursue the more imaginative science fictional territory of Black Mirror.
“A lot of the sight lines of Solace State become the character literally hacking the 3D environment of the architecture space to reveal the information,” she explains. “With this kind of aesthetic, what we want to introduce for the character is this sense of uncanniness, that even if she seems to know a 3D space well, there is hidden information. There is always a kind of occlusion or obfuscation of this information. There are a lot of different layers, and at the same time those layers can be revealed.”
These elements, Kan believes, play into the idea of surveillance. Solace State’s characters aren’t part of the corporation that has blocked off their district. And, as marginalized members of society, they certainly aren’t part of the Abraxa surveillance state either. “How does that actually create a type of new populace who then starts surveilling themselves?” Kan muses.
To create the visual novel’s look, Kan and her Vivid Foundry collaborators opted for the 3D game development pipeline. The 3D modeling is being done in both Blender and 3DS Max, then ported into the game engine Unity. The 2D art, on the other hand, is being created by the Toronto-based artist Courtney “Seage” Howlett.
“These artworks are all 2D planes that we put into the 3D world,” Kan explains. “Seage does the illustrations in a plethora of different software, from painting software on the iPad to Photoshop.”
As seen in a Solace State storytelling trailer, Chloe and other characters appear in 2D, as do some planes of the city. These characters are cleverly folded into the visual novel’s 3D cityscapes, which can fold, rotate, unfurl, and otherwise morph to reveal a labyrinthine city full of information, there for the taking. It looks like an engaging visual-novel experience, and a unique one, given its overt political themes, including such zeitgeist issues as immigration and surveillance. The group plans to release it on PC, as well as on other platforms, including streaming sites, in “a little over a year.”
“We want to have interesting content for people who are interested in the intersection between art and social impact, and how can we talk about people coming together who are interested in moving beyond the surveillance state and having a better life overall,” says Kan. “We’re hoping to start building that community so that people can find a welcoming space to talk about these concerns and feel empowered within their own communities.”
Vivid Foundry will showcase a demo of Solace State at PAX West gaming festival’s Indie Mega Booth in Seattle on August 31st.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year the story is set. It’s 2029, not 2039.